VELVET BUZZSAW is a tendentious morality play. I'm not sure if it's meant to be an overly artsy thriller, a cautionary tale of avarice and ego or a particularly sardonic and gruesome statement on art, love, life and death. Maybe it's all of the above, and probably it doesn't matter. The upshot is quite simple: misery loves company.
No, wait, strike that! That's a theme of the film, as the characters are all pretty miserable shits, and you'll certainly feel miserable after sitting through it. But I think the message is that art is pure and even sacred, whilst crass commerce cheapens it to the point of being a cheesy commodity – even if we can assuage our doubts with the cashola being made and in the knowledge that the damnable, difficult artist is out the the way! It's a tart message as old as literature itself, all the more ironic given the medium and machine it emerges from.
So maybe this entire effort is actually self-parody?
As someone who labored for years in Hollywood, and whose work made other people millions, I confess I'm a sucker for such a message – though I'm hardly in the target demographic, for a number of reasons. I'm also quite sure most 20-something consumers of this filmic product will miss the point entirely. I could practically hear them in my head: When does this get scary? Or fun? Gah. Pass the Gummy Bears!
The main plot line is more than a bit convoluted, and the side arcs neither intriguing nor illuminating, so I won't go into all that here. But the film does exhibit some arch observations on the high end fine art scene, and a few clever faux-artworks one might really like to see at LACMA. So that's cool.
Jake Gyllenhaal, who stars as Morf Vandewalt, is making quite a name for himself playing odd, off-center, eccentric characters. In this case, as a prickly, infamous arbiter of upscale style, whose precious opinion pieces dictate the success or failure of artists, agents and even galleries. He is convincing, if slightly wince-inducing, and this has nothing to do with his character's bisexuality. However, if he's in many more bad films, he may find himself at the Old Actors Home with Nick Cage, wondering where the hell it all went wrong.
Perhaps he should cease collaboration with writer/director Dan Gilroy, because this pair is zero for two. Together they brought us the not very interesting and uninspired NIGHTCRAWLER, another Gyllenhaal vehicle in which he plays an unlikable strange-o we're supposed to root for because… well, because he's the main character.
The problem with playing eccentrics is in humanizing them. The audience may watch the antics of a weirdo for a while out of novelty, but if “Joe Average Schmuckaroo” can't relate on some level, it's all a sterile academic exercise and does not make for a very buzzworthy film.
It's probably obvious, and definitely film school 101, but there's a reason every single Hitchcock protagonist was an “everyman” (or woman). There was no setup or long, drawn out narrative necessary. No “get to know you” period needed. You could instantly relate to these characters and empathize with them, even if you didn't necessarily approve of their actions or even particularly like them. Hitch could get right on with the story, no questions asked, no worries, and you actually cared about what happened.
Sadly for Gyllenhaal, his portrayals of odd ducks contain little warmth or human qualities. At least for this viewer the performance as Morf, while technically proficient, was as cold and hard as most of the movie's chic Bauhaus aesthetic, or as it's resident robotic art piece, Hoboman.
VELVET BUZZSAW, like NIGHTCRAWLER is well made, and gives us insight into another seedy, greedy, underbelly of L.A. – in this case, the oh-so-pretentious collector art racket – which most of us will never know first hand, and for which we should all be grateful.
One wonders how helmer Gilroy is familiar with the sleaze in so many different fields. He, too, must have had an interesting “struggle” period. Will he cap off the pair of films with Gyllenhaal and make it a trilogy by brutally satirizing Hollywood itself? That one might actually be worth watching. Perhaps they'll do one on the harsh subworld of standup comedy, where “to kill” has a different meaning entirely.
Hey now, that's not a bad idea. A struggling comic who is actually a serial killer. Imagine what he does to hecklers. Call my agent!
BUZZSAW's unflinching eye, like that of the eerie talking robot sculpture featured throughout the film, is most effective in lampooning the haute culture bubble of wealthy, overly served and compulsively acquisitive clients, clutching artists desperate for fame and fortune, and the middlemen (in this case, women) who link the two disparate and mostly incompatible groups.
Rene Russo plays Rhodora Haze, a former punk rock singer turned snooty top galley owner who, along with slightly superior competitor Gretchen (Toni Collete), is attempting to corner the market on dead “outsider artist” Ventril Dease, whose extremely disturbing, haunting works have appeared on the scene from out of nowhere. These are courtesy of Josephina (Zawe Ashton), a young, ambitious rising star in the frou-frou art gallery world who wants to bypass dues-paying and reach the status of the other two women, and who will do anything (or anyone) to get there. Ashton's performance and character arc, such as they are, are the most compelling of the entire folderol.
Everybody in this movie is bitchy – including the men — which drastically decreases the likability factor of the entire enterprise. I'm not exactly sure what it says about L.A., or men, or the art world, but I was personally offended and take profound exception. I was never bitchy. Well, except for when I had to suffer through a pretentiously bad movie.
Conflict that is both simultaneously high-brow and petty emerges when the above ladies (this includes Morf) engage in all manner of dirty tricks in order to profit from the multi-million dollar cache of the deceased's works. Unfortunately for those concerned, Dease's creations are “imbued with a dangerous spirit,” if I remember Morf's hysteric explication correctly (he has begun having very realistic and threatening “hallucinations”). The dead artist's works are, in short, cursed. Everybody who attempts to profit from his long life of pain – and ignominious death – is going to pay horribly. Which, in theory, is where the “horror” part of the film comes in – and flops.
For a horror film to be truly successful, one must care about the characters. Or at least one of them. The viewer must be invested, and empathize. He or she must actually fear for somebody on screen.
Maybe it's just me, but I found none of the self-absorbed, egotistical assholes in this mix especially appealing. Nor did extraneous love affairs and relationship rivalries help. I cared little for them or about them. Frankly, as the film wore on, I was hoping for some particularly interesting and gruesome death scenes to make my suffering along the way worthwhile. But alas, only one of these occurred on camera.
It also helps a horror film's unfolding if there is some internal logic – or just consistency – to the inimical force's doings, or at least a sense there might be. None of which is present in VELVET BUZZSAW. There is little real tension here, nor is the horror terribly compelling, nor very interesting, nor horrifying. Well, with the possible exception of Gretchen's demise and aftermath. One could say she suffered mightily for her art while simultaneously experiencing the ignominy of an unremarked upon, unnoticed death (ala Dease).
The best thing about VELVET BUZZSAW, not surprisingly, is John Malkovich as Piers, in a tertiary role as a washed-up one-time art wunderkind desperately trying to regain his painterly mojo. Sadly for Piers, he is utterly devoid of new ideas. He's also completely out of step with the pop art scene – to which I can relate. He is lucky that while all around him his highly transactional “friends” are dying horrific deaths for having even peripheral contact with the works of Ventril Dease, he emerges completely unscathed.
The film ends with him playing in the sand at the beach, a never before seen smile on his face, indicating he has regained his creative voice, or at least achieved a fleeting moment of artistic bliss. But it doesn't matter. We know Piers is doomed, like everyone else in this movie, the movie itself, and all those poor souls forced to endure it.
— K.S. Knight (@BOOKofKNIGHT) February 26, 2019
KSK had his first professional work published at 14, and has been writing ever since. Recent works include QANON & TRUMP EXPOSED, a serious examination of the inane, insane, harebrained conspiracy theory, and THE TOP 10 MOST POPULAR WESTERN NOVELS OF ALL TIME. Future works will be fiction, though one can argue that in the Age of Trump, reality is already fiction, like Donald's tan, his "$10+ billion dollars" and his integrity.